Jesse Hawley

Jesse Hawley

Death 10 Jan 1842 (aged 68)
Burial Lockport, Niagara County, New York, USA
Plot Sec F plot 6
Memorial ID 33904588 · View Source
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Erie Canal Proponent. Flour Merchant in Geneva, New York, he became frustrated with the length of time and decay of goods in shipment to and from New York Harbor. In 1805, he became the earliest and major advocate in the idea of the Erie Canal System in New York State. His business bankruptcy gained him twenty months in debtor's prison. While incarcerated his writings under the name Hercules gained him favor only after his release. New York Governor De Witt Clinton, through his memoirs enlightened the public and political prosecution of Hawley, that he alone was the sole author of the Canal System idea. To quote from an essay in the Ontario Messenger, included in said memoirs, " a canal from the foot of Lake Erie into the Mohawk River" was the decisive line to convince all

George Washington and our nation's founding fathers began discussions of a navigable waterway between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean dating back as far as the 1700s. But the concept never took shape until the early 1800s when aspiring politico DeWitt Clinton gave Jesse Hawley the credit for making him a believer in an "artificial river" to connect Albany with Buffalo.

As straightforward as it may seem, as with anything as ultimately successful as the Erie Canal, there is usually a general clamor on the part of politicians and their friends to line up to take credit for the project. Much like the flap surrounding the "inventor" of the internet, many other people over the years were willing to take credit for the success of Erie's waters.

Jesse Hawley was originally a Canandaigua flour merchant, who later settled in Lockport. Once on the scene, Hawley went on to be village treasurer from 1836 until his death in 1842. Hawley knew first hand of the difficulties in shipping his flour to the east by road in the days before the construction of the Erie Canal. The roads, at that time, were little more than old Indian trails. Travel for much of the year was impossible, and always unaffordable. Hawley shared his ideas, first with James Geddes of Canandaigua, who went on to be the principle surveyor for the route of the Erie Canal. Later, Hawley found a larger audience for his idea when he wrote several newspaper articles using the pen name "Hercules."

His articles focused on building a direct inland water route across the state. Hawley advocated for a completely inland route, instead of utilizing Lake Ontario, in order to avoid any influence from the British and Canada. He cited information from his knowledge of European canals and their economic success and laid out a course for the canal that largely went on to be adopted when the canal was built. He offered projections for future canal traffic and the economic results that could be expected. Hawley's articles persuaded DeWitt Clinton to adopt this cause and to invest his political career into making this concept a reality. History has proven this to be a very fortunate political decision.

In all fairness to Hawley, but also not wishing to distort the actual events that happened, Hawley wrote the canal articles from a prison cell, while fulfilling his 24-month "obligation" in an institution known at the time as "debtors' prison." This was in a day and age before bankruptcy laws remove the stigma of having trouble with one's debts. Hawley was serving out his term of incarceration in Canandaigua for some troublesome business obligations. To his credit, he did not shirk this responsibility, as often was the case. Many others, who could not pay their debts, would simply move across state lines to avoid prosecution. Hawley stated that he felt he had a moral obligation to fulfill the letter-of-the-law in this regards. It's ironic to note that Hawley went on from debtor's prison to become a well respected Village of Lockport treasurer.

In honor of his contribution, Gov. Clinton gave Hawley the honor of making the first congratulatory speech at the opening celebration for the Erie Canal on Oct. 26, 1825. Hawley made his speech in Buffalo and then rode with Gov. Clinton onboard the canal boat, "Seneca Chief," bound for New York City.

Hawley died suddenly in Cambria while visiting friends in 1842. He was buried at Cold Spring Cemetery, a short distance from his beloved canal. He had lived to see most of his Erie Canal projections come to pass. A white marble obelisk marks the last resting place of the Erie Canal's most ardent defender. On the Cold Spring Road, a state historical marker reads: "Cold Spring Cemetery — Jesse Hawley who first advocated building the Erie Canal in 1805 is buried here. Friend of DeWitt Clinton."

Doug Farley is director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center.

Family Members

Gravesite Details Bio first section by Bruce and 2nd section by Doug Farley



  • Created by: Bruce Genewich
  • Added: 16 Feb 2009
  • Find A Grave Memorial 33904588
  • Find A Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Jesse Hawley (11 May 1773–10 Jan 1842), Find A Grave Memorial no. 33904588, citing Cold Springs Cemetery, Lockport, Niagara County, New York, USA ; Maintained by Bruce Genewich (contributor 46940699) .